Decision makers and the public need pertinent scientific input in order to balance planned development with environmental concerns.
By Zafrir Rinat

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of scientific research on environmental problems such as climate change, water shortages and the development of clean energy. That is why many international environmental organizations are concerned about the constant erosion in the decision makers’ and public’s trust in the findings the scientific community presents. The most prominent example is the growing skepticism regarding studies stating that the earth is experiencing climate change caused by humans.

Last month, the United Nations Environment Programme published a comprehensive report rating in order of importance the 21 main environmental problems the human race is now dealing with. One of the top five problems is the difficult relationship between the scientific community and decision makers and the public at large. Based on publications and studies that reviewed the impact of scientific endeavor, the report determined that public trust in environmental scientists is gradually eroding. The situation is the same with regard to decision makers in politics and finance.
Arava – Hershkovitz – 8.3.12

Researchers garnering vital information about the Arava desert.
Photo by: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

There are many and varied reasons for the decline in trust, depending on the population sector in question. Among the public at large, there is a tendency not to trust scientists when they blame the human race. After all, dealing with such a heavy responsibility is likely to affect the convenience and wellbeing that residents mostly of the wealthy countries have grown accustomed to.

This is what happened with climate change after seemingly suspicious reports on the methods climate scientists used to analyze the data they collected. Corporations concerned about the effect of dealing with climate change used these reports to spread doubts regarding the veracity of the claim that humankind is causing global warming.

These doubts found a receptive ear in the general public, as showed by a Gallup poll taken two years ago in the U.S. according to which, within two years, the number of Americans who feel the importance attributed to climate change is exaggerated increased 13 percent. Many Americans are worried that adopting a policy to prevent global warming will result, among other things, in damage to the energy industry and an increase in the price of various products, including gas.

The new report notes that one of the main problems the scientists have is how to translate complex information into a language the decision makers and the public understand. In many cases, the scientists are working on things that are of no interest to the decision makers, rendering their work irrelevant.

Another problem raised by a number of scientists is that researchers tend to flood the public with bad news and do not inject any hope by providing some balance and publishing positive developments. A year ago, two Australian researchers, Stephen Garnett and David Lindenmayer, wrote an article on this topic in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution. In it, they argued that scientists cannot just depress the public with bad news about the extinction of species. They must also empower the public with hope based on successes in nature preservation.

The two scientists noted that in addition to the tough problems of nature protection there have been successes, such as the increase in the wild animal population in Namibia and in the largest park in South Africa. They pointed out that in Iraq work on rehabilitating a unique swampland has begun, and in the U.S. the Endangered Species Act has basically achieved its goal. There are also a number of agreements and laws that have led to the preservation of nature on a wide scale.

The two scientists suggested holding conferences where scientists will describe the successes in nature preservation around the world. Failing to recognize the achievements of nature protection efforts will lead to the self-fulfillment of the prophecies of doom for them, they warned: In order to increase the impact of scientific studies on the formulation of environmental policy, there has to be a deep cultural shift among scientists. The kind that would train them to communicate better with a broad and non-professional public.

In recent years, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has been running a program to integrate scientists in government efforts, and a similar program on a smaller scale has also been launched in Israel.

The Israel Society of Ecology and Environmental Sciences launched the Mimshak program, which seeks to fortify the scientific basis that supports the formulation of environmental public policy in Israel. The program, which is already operating, aims to integrate for one year scientists from different disciplines in the environmental sciences in the routine work of government ministries related to their areas of expertise. The assumption is that later on some of the scientists will become permanent fixtures in the government agencies’ work, and in any case they will develop contacts with the decision makers. They will be exposed to the government’s working methods, and government officials and professionals in the ministries will be exposed to their scientific work. The program also includes training the scientists to present findings of scientific studies to the media.

The UN’s new report warns that failure to take steps to bridge the gaps between environmental scientists and political and financial decision makers will result in a situation where the decision makers will not have enough information to enable them to determine when and how to intervene in environmental affairs. The scientists will have less incentive to present their work to the decision makers, and the general public will not support funding for efforts to deal with environmental problems. This is a guaranteed recipe for further deterioration of the world’s natural resources.